Increasingly popular global narratives of successful, active, and productive aging can create universalist models of a good old age. They also suggest that there exists an opposite: an unsuccessful, inactive, and unproductive old age. This article argues that we can reframe how we think about aging by focusing on meaningful everyday activities and aspects of the collective past. Drawing on ethnographic research in Poland, where the oldest generations have lived through dramatic sociocultural and political-economic transformations, the article suggests that we can create more complex and inclusive ways to talk about aging.
active aging, lifelong learning, care, ethnography, everyday life, Poland, Europe, postsocialism
When I lived in Poland, I learned to think differently about how we talk about aging. I witnessed older adults who were striving to disrupt ageist stereotypes by living active, independent lives, and older adults who were suffering due to illness, loneliness, or poverty. That is, I saw examples of older adults whose experiences of aging aligned with the dominant cultural narratives of late life. These increasingly popular and globally circulating narratives create two opposing models of aging, as a time in the life course characterized by either success or failure, activity or passivity, productivity or unproductivity.
But I also observed older adults whose experiences cannot be described by these models. Even for the older adults who seemed to fit into this dualistic paradigm, important elements of their lives were not represented within it. This binary framework cannot capture the complexities of late life’s experiences and meanings as they are lived by older adults, and can risk universalizing particular cultural ideals of late life (Lamb et al., 2017).
To move beyond the binary, this article argues that directing research attention to meaningful everyday activities can offer new ways to think about aging. It draws upon long-term ethnographic research in Poland to argue that experiences of aging occurring in contexts not specifically “about” aging can offer new insights and help us to reframe how we talk about aging.
Such reframing highlights aging as an experience fundamentally shaped by the society, culture, politics, and economics of a particular place, in a particular time. Like other times in the life course, aging is a profoundly local experience. To understand local ideals of aging, it is necessary to examine experiences and meanings of aging in their sociocultural and political-economic contexts. Ethnographic research is well suited to this endeavor because of its inductive approach, which builds meaningful categories of analysis from observing specific empirical phenomenon rather than predetermining these categories. For instance, rather than presuming that physical and social activity contribute to a good old age, and then documenting the quantity and quality of those activities, ethnographic research asks what types of activities contribute to a good old age according to the perspective of older adults themselves, and how the contemporary and historical context have shaped these activities. Ethnographic research takes a culturally relative perspective by attempting to understand a particular phenomenon within its own terms.
Poland offers a productive example to think about contextual dimensions of aging because older Poles have lived through multiple dramatic political-economic and sociocultural transformations. The oldest generations in contemporary Poland were born before World War II and have lived through the devastation and losses of that war, the redrawing of the country’s boundaries after the war, the imposition of state socialism by the Soviet Union, the collapse of that system, the introduction of market democracy, and entry into the European Union.
All these transformations occurred not only at the national level, but also at the personal level. In other words, these changes were not only in the realms of politics, economics, and geography, but also in everyday life and in how people understood themselves and their place in the world (Verdery, 1996). This is a tremendous amount of change to occur during one lifetime. Aging in Poland, then, is an exemplary case through which to explore how experiences of aging connect to sociocultural and political-economic context.
‘Older Poles learning English in contemporary Poland, then, are part of a deeper history of class aspirations.’
To explore the social roles and cultural meanings of aging in Poland, I conducted 22 months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2006 and 2014 in two cities in western Poland, Wrocław and Poznań (see Robbins, 2021, for a more extensive presentation of this research). I sought out field sites that were associated with active aging as well as those associated with its opposite, institutional long-term care. Additionally, because none of these sites demonstrated typical experiences of aging in Poland, I sought out other contexts that were neither cultural ideals nor their opposite. These included neighborhood senior clubs, parish clubs, and allotment gardens.
Methods included participant observation, the hallmark of ethnographic research, involving dual subjectivities of doing and observing. What this meant in practice shifted by context. In lifelong learning institutions, I attended classes with older adults and led a conversational English class. In long-term residential care, I accompanied residents to physical therapy sessions and Catholic mass, shadowed a nurse’s aide, and kept residents company. In senior clubs and parish clubs I participated in club activities, and at allotment gardens I participated in gardening and joined in social gatherings. I also conducted semi-structured and open-ended interviews with older adults, staff, and local aging activists.
Active Aging in Poland
In contemporary Poland, active aging programming is proliferating, as the European Union and national, regional, and local governments aim to promote the health of the growing aging population. One of the most prominent forms of active aging in Poland is the University of Third Age (UTA), a type of lifelong learning institution popular in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world. The concept of the “third age” is an idealized time in the life course in which one has retired from the labor force and can contribute to society in other ways, such as through volunteering (Laslett, 1996).
The third age runs counter to the “fourth age,” which is supposedly characterized by “dependence and decrepitude” (Laslett, 1996, p. 192). UTAs exist in large cities and small towns, and vary in institutional form, with some formally affiliated with local universities and others existing as stand-alone organizations. These institutions are popular with older Poles; for instance, in Wrocław, multiple UTAs regularly turn away interested older adults due to lack of capacity.
The programming at UTAs is quite diverse. At the UTA at the University of Wrocław, there are classes in academic subjects such as physics and psychology, and activities such as sailing, choir, and handicrafts. Classes in foreign languages, especially English, were popular. I taught conversational English classes during my research, and many older adults shared that they were learning English to communicate with their children’s spouses and grandchildren in the United Kingdom. (Many Poles emigrated to the UK after 2004, when Poland joined the European Union, as it was legal for Poles to work there without a visa.) This geopolitical context shaped discursive framings of active aging.
The meanings of active aging in Poland have to do with the national transformations that older Poles experienced and the changing imaginations of the proper place of Poland in the world. Particularly important is the transition from socialism to capitalism, such that active aging includes aspiring to a kind of old age that aligns with supposed Western ideals. For instance, a former institutional leader in Wrocław spoke of creating Euroseniorzy (“Euroseniors.”) She aimed to accomplish this through practices explicitly connected with the EU, such as taking older adults on trips to the EU parliament in Brussels and Strasbourg and to meet their representatives.
Others were less explicit, like helping older adults to become “open” instead of “closed” in their attitudes toward the world, and in their interest in learning new skills and meeting new people. One NGO called “@ctive Senior” taught participants how to use ATMs and invest in the stock market, and to take responsibility for their health, as opposed to being passive and following directions from doctors. Both institutional leaders and older Poles considered these activities a transition away from the socialist past and toward individual and national belonging in the EU and the world.
But, although some of the activities of the UTAs, such as learning English and visiting the EU Parliament, were connected to recent sociopolitical changes, they also resonated with older forms of sociality and education. UTAs have existed in Poland since the 1970s and have been teaching foreign languages since that time. Additionally, Poles have been learning foreign languages for generations, especially during the partition era, as a way to access cultural prestige. Older Poles learning English in contemporary Poland, then, are part of a deeper history of class aspirations.
Moreover, UTAs included more than learning new skills; older Poles also engaged in activities in which they had participated earlier in their lives. Although institutional leaders and participants did not discuss these activities (e.g., handicrafts, choir) as frequently as other topics, they were still an important element of the life of the UTA. The national past was also evident in some of these activities, such as choirs and cabaret performances. Topics such as Pope John Paul II, who was Polish and is beloved in Poland to this day, and the now-Ukrainian city of Lviv, which used to be part of Poland and has multiple links to the current city of Wrocław, were common. Continuity exists in contemporary practices of active aging at both individual and national levels.
At the UTAs’ multiple activities, participants described new friendships as one of the most important aspects of their time there. Unlike in earlier phases of life, older Poles felt they now had time to make new friends—and importantly, these new friendships were based upon affinity, distinguishing them from relations like coworkers and neighbors. They associated these relations not only with this new phase of life, but also with Poland’s recent Westward orientation, in contrast to the socialist past, in which social relations had a utilitarian quality. For older Poles at the UTAs, active aging has elements of aspiration toward a new way of life, and connections to the shared past. In other words, this is a form of aging in which values of commonality, sociality, and collectivity are equally as important as individuality and independence.
Creating Meaning Through Storytelling, Gardening, and Other Everyday Activities
In Poland, living in long-term care such as nursing homes is a stigmatized way to receive care in late life. There is a longstanding cultural norm of living at home in late life, and a strong preference to be cared for at home, among family, rather than to be cared for by paid workers (Łuszczyńska, 2021). In addition to this stigma, there is also a shortage of beds in long-term residential care. In 2015, only 3.4% of older adults who were categorized as dependent resided in long-term care institutions, while 4.6% received paid home care (The World Bank, 2015).
I expected that long-term care would reflect this stereotype and that residents would feel isolated and marginalized. Although there certainly were some residents who experienced their time in care facilities this way, there were others who were able to live lives they felt were satisfying. At the level of everyday life, the experiences of older Poles in institutional care were quite similar to those of participants at the UTAs.
‘One even told me he credited his garden with keeping him alive during and after cancer treatments.’
Across multiple contexts, older Poles formed connections with others by telling stories, learning new skills, and sharing food and drink. For instance, in a long-term rehabilitation center, one older woman who had been a farmer often told stories about her own bodily suffering after the stroke that had caused her to move from her home to this care facility. She interwove stories of her suffering with that of the Polish nation, describing the difficulties of life during state socialism. Just as the framework of Polish history mattered for older Poles at UTAs who learned English and new skills as a way of aligning with Poland’s recent Westward orientation, so, too, did older Poles in institutional care make sense of their lives in terms of the national past.
Although the skills they acquired were quite different—learning foreign languages or to use a computer at the UTAs, re-learning motor skills or how to operate a wheelchair in the rehabilitation center—the activities were sources of meaning, connection, and satisfaction for older Poles.
Finally, the sharing of food and drink was a key way of forming social relations, as attendees of UTAs shared coffee in a university cafeteria after class or residents of institutional care shared tea and snacks following class. Across both third- and fourth-age contexts, then, these meaningful everyday activities offered opportunities to experience a good old age.
In contexts beyond the third and fourth ages, older Poles engaged in everyday practices that exceed binary understandings of aging. Older Poles went about their daily lives in ways that cannot be explained by concepts of either the third or fourth age. This is evident from my research at allotment gardens, places more typical for older adults to spend their time than either UTAs or institutional care. Many older Poles have had their gardens for decades; some have inherited them from kin. People often grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, and the allotments often have small sheds and outdoor seating where neighbors and friends can gather.
Older Poles shared that they valued their allotment gardens as a respite from city life and as an escape from the tedium of staying at home in one’s own apartment. They appreciated being outdoors among animals that they would not otherwise see. Some described allotment gardens as specifically Polish places; one older man commented that having one’s own allotment garden, one’s own property, was something that distinguished Poles from the “tsarists” to the East, meaning the Russians.
During state socialism, Polish agriculture was never fully collectivized, so small farms existed throughout the socialist era, distinguishing Poland from its neighbors (Nagengast, 2019). Another proudly boasted of the hollyhocks he grew, describing them as “our flower,” which have a “folkloristic” quality. For several older Poles I knew, tending to their allotment gardens structured the rhythms of their days, weeks, and months. One even told me he credited his garden with keeping him alive during and after cancer treatments. At the gardens, older Poles created meaningful lives for themselves by creating and sustaining relations with particular places, plants, and people. There is a vital sociality to experiences of aging at allotment gardens that exceeds dominant binary, linear understandings of late life.
Ethnographic research on aging in Poland demonstrates that older Poles create meaningful lives for themselves in ways that exceed normative binary understandings of old age. Foregrounding these everyday activities can help us to reframe how we think about aging. For instance, instead of interpreting daily life in a nursing home in a negative frame that focuses on experiences of dependence and suffering, we could take a more fine-grained interpretive perspective to explore what possibilities there might be for meaningful activities like storytelling, learning, and sharing food and drink.
In turn, such reframing may offer new directions for social policies focused on aging. For instance, funding could support not only organizations such as Universities of the Third Age, but also organizations such as senior clubs and gardening groups. Reframing how we think about aging, then, may offer new possibilities for more inclusive social policies that can reach a broader segment of the population.
This research also demonstrates that aspects of continuity matter as well as rupture, even in a place like Poland, where the oldest generations have lived through such dramatic violence. Paying attention to how the collective past comes to matter, in addition to individual biographies, can help to provide more nuanced analytic insights that better reflect the diversity of experiences of aging. That is, local, regional, and national histories can offer new insights into how older adults conceptualize their own lives. Understanding these shared pasts can help to localize how we think about aging. By using analytic language that aligns with older adults’ own experiences and ideals of late life, researchers, practitioners, and older adults can work against harmful and reductive stereotypes created by binary imaginaries of late life.
Jessica C. Robbins-Panko, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Institute of Gerontology and Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.
Photo caption: An older man and woman sit on a park bench in Krakow, Poland, in 2023.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/Elzbieta Krysztof
Lamb, S., Robbins-Ruszkowski, J., & Corwin, A. (2017). Introduction: Successful aging as a twenty-first-century obsession. In S. Lamb (Ed.), Successful aging as a contemporary obsession (pp. 1–24). Rutgers University Press.
Laslett, P. (1996). A fresh map of life: The emergence of the third age. Palgrave Macmillan.
Łuszczyńska, M. (2021). Ageing as a social challenge: Individual, family and social aspects in Poland. Routledge.
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